It’s not often a literature professor gets to listen to his own profession sung in gorgeous oratorio, in seven voices, backed by twenty-three musicians from the Yale Philharmonic. In a dozen songs written and composed by Martin Bresnick, Passions of Bloom brought together poetry by Whitman and Dickinson, Melville’s prose, and organizing snippets and bits of melancholy autobiography from Harold Bloom, mostly extracted from his 2015 book The Daemon Knows: Greatness and the American Sublime.
Like many of the literary critics at whom Bloom’s been sniping since before I finished grad school — I did my PhD at Yale but didn’t take his course on Shakespeare — I’m ambivalent about his popularizing celebrations of a traditional, mostly white and mostly male canon. But in this new format, Bloom’s memoir-tinged engagements with great works of literature, voiced by members of Yale Choral Artists, produced brilliant, humanizing, engaging art.
It turns out that the old familiar masters, set to new music and sung with aching beauty, can do quite a lot.
At the post-performance champagne toast, Bresnick quipped that he hadn’t expected the references to Bloom still teaching after 54 years and also to a “dreary” November morning in New Haven to be laugh lines, as they were last night. I imagine there were quite a few other professors in the crowd, though I only recognized one member of the Yale English department from my students days in the ’90s. Probably I missed a few others.
The vocal parts included two tenors, singing the parts of Bloom and Walt Whitman, a Bass-Baritone as Melville, a basso prufundo dredging the roar of Ahab up from deep in his stomach, a Baritone as Ishmael, and two different women singing the parts of Emily Dickinson, in Mezzo-Soprano and Soprano. I’m not expert enough to judge the singing, but I thought all brilliant: James Taylor as Bloom hinted melancholy beneath the ego, and both the women who sang Dickinson — one for the poems, another for an excerpt from a letter — were breathtaking performers.
The opening set of songs featured Bloom and Whitman, tracing Bloom’s reading of Walt as “American Adam” and prophet of an American Gnosticism and national religion of the self. (I’ve not read The Daemon Knows, but Bloom’s been making this argument for decades.) The opening line and title of the second song, “I have aged into a firm conviction that true criticism recognizes itself as a mode of memoir,” reveals the human pathos of the Bloom-figure, both his massive egotism and the openness to literary experience that self-regard enables. Is it possible to read so voraciously without deeply contemplating the self?
After Whitman comes Melville in three voices: the author, Ahab, and Ishmael. The show-stopper here was Glenn Miller’s deeper-than-deep bass voice, thundering Ahab’s wish to “strike the sun if it insulted me.” This section of the oratorio ended with Bloom’s query, “Are all Americans Ahab?” — which, to me at least, emphasized that the reading of Moby-Dick presented in these songs was Ahabic rather than Ishmael-ish. The bow oarsman and lone survivor does get some music, including a rehearsal of his “playbill” about the Grand Contested Election and war in Afghanistan, which Bloom and Bresnick note were current news in 1850 (when Moby-Dick was published), 2015 (when The Daemon Knows appeared) and again today.
But I can hardly blame Bloom for not responding to a fully Ishmael-ist reading of the novel when I’ve only just started my own version of such a thing, when I published the first three poems of Sailing without Ahab in April.
Third and last came Emily Dickinson in poems and a letter. The two poems, “The Saddest Noise, the Sweetest Noise” and “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” called less upon the power of interpretation than of celebration, as he admitted that Emily was beyond his critical grasp. An excerpt from one of her letters to Thomas Higginson, in which she names “myself the only kangaroo among the beauty,” made gorgeous contrast with the canonical verses, though Martin Bresnick admitted afterward that the ‘roo was a hidden nod to his Australian wife.
All the voices appeared on stage together for “Bloom’s Daemon” and “The Lesson Done,” the last of which brought the full house to its feet in joy.
I learned after the show that Harold Bloom is not well enough to have been there last night, but he hopes to watch a video feed of the performance today. He should feel gratified, hearing the musical rewards of a life’s reading and grappling with poetry’s oblique promises.
One of Bloom’s lines described sitting down to write his chapter on Melville on “November 13th,” on a day in which New Haven’s air smelled of the ocean. When Ishmael feels that “damp drizzly November in my soul” he takes to sea. When Bloom feels it — or when I do — he opens a book. All of us looking for the same thing?